Part I: Birth of an Industry

Part I: Birth of an Industry

        Divorce has rather suddenly become big business. In a great many cities the number of divorce cases filed annually exceeds the number of all other civil actions combined.

—Judge Paul W. Alexander, 1952

        There’s an old saying that, ‘You get as much justice as you can afford.’ And most people can’t afford any justice at all.

—Gloria Allred, attorney

Chapter 1. The Legal Landscape

We’re gonna fight you. And even if you win, you’re gonna think that you lost.

—Gerald Nissenbaum, attorney


During his long and occasionally controversial tenure as the presiding judge in a New Jersey family court, Thomas Zampino managed thousands of attorneys arguing everything from who should pay for a child’s private education to who got the family dog. Zampino is a big, jovial man with a peach-colored tan and a boyish grin that belies the inestimable conflict and heartbreak he’s witnessed over the years. He recalls one day when, looking over the courtroom from the bench, he totaled up the cost of the legal representation before him at $27,000 per hour—for a single case. He once tried, he says, to limit the attorney’s fees in a particular case to $50,000 on each side in order to save the child’s college fund, but to no avail. The lawyers sued for four times that amount and an appeals court let them have it.

“I tell people,” Zampino says, “You are spending the money that you would use for your children’s college education for the college education of your lawyers’ children.” But in the United States, judges are not allowed to dispense legal advice and rarely mediate as they used to. They are supposed to be referees, not peacemakers. So husbands and wives do not receive their legal counsel from an impartial observer in a black robe but from an advocate who is being paid by the hour to press their case as aggressively and for as long as they can.

Zampino recalls a divorce trial in which he sat listening to an expert witness testifying to the value of a marital asset. When the witness estimated the asset at $60,000, Zampino raised an eyebrow and interrupted. He had previously been informed that the witness was being paid approximately $70,000 for his testimony. “Why on earth would you charge $70,000,” he asked the man from the bench, “when you know that the most your client could possibly get from this asset is half of $60,000—less than half of your fee?”

The expert witness shrugged and pointed to his client at the lawyer’s table. “Because she wanted me to,” he said. Buy the book to read more…

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